The University Record, June 19, 1995

Much workplace violence is preventable, say U-M experts

By Julie A. Peterson

A recently fired employee returns to exact revenge with an assault rifle; a disgruntled customer expresses his dissatisfaction with a shooting spree. Incidents such as these receive splashy newspaper headlines, striking fear in our hearts and leaving us wondering whether we're really safe at work.

Fortunately, these types of violent incidents are relatively rare, according to Keith Bruhnsen and Karen Semenuk of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASAP). And while workplace violence of all types is on the rise, they say much of it can be prevented.

Bruhnsen and Semenuk discussed workplace violence in a presentation at the Workplace of the '90s Conference last month.

According to a study by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., one of four employees was harassed, threatened or attacked during a one-year period ending in June 1993. Prof. Richard Price of the Institute for Social Research was involved in the study, which was the first national study on the subject.

Occupational homicide is the third leading cause of workplace death for all employees and the number one cause of death for women in the workplace. Workplace homicides increased from 1,004 in 1992 to 1,063 in 1993.

At the U-M, Bruhnsen said, we also have seen an increase in workplace violence, particularly in reported incidence of threats. "Fifteen years ago, we were seeing about one a year, and now it's one or two a week," he said. "We're not sure whether we're more sensitive to the problem and are having more incidents reported, or whether the level of frustration and violence is escalating."

Workplace violence can occur at all levels of the institution and can involve employees, supervisors, former employees, students, faculty, customers and patients. Employees also can get drawn into violent situations involving family members or others in relationships with co-workers.

Incidents ending in homicide or other serious physical harm almost never happen in a vacuum, said Bruhnsen and Semenuk. Leading up to a violent outbreak are a whole host of warning signs that often are ignored.

"You should never take threats lightly," said Bruhnsen. "Always report even minor stuff, even if it happens under the guise of horseplay." In particular, people who work in offices often are embarrassed to call for help if they feel threatened. "If you're concerned about your safety, always call 911," he said.

Warning signs to watch for include threats or comments about seeking revenge; interest in weapons or violent situations; evidence of drug or alcohol problems; paranoia, depression or bizarre behavior; change in work behavior or status; and/or a recent history of family problems.

If you are concerned about or feel threatened by a coworker, in most cases you should discuss your concerns with a supervisor. You also may seek assistance through FASAP, 998-7500, or through the Employee Relations Office, 763-2387. Semenuk said that if your concerns involve a supervisor or if you are afraid your complaints will result in relatiation or will not be taken seriously, you may want to get together with coworkers and express your concerns as a group.

A number of measures are planned by the University in order to address the issue of workplace violence, according to Jackie McClain, executive director of Human Resources/Affirmative Action. A set of guidelines will be published and circulated by fall. Also, two teams will be established, one to deal with threats and one to handle violent incidents, that will include representatives from Human Resources, FASAP, Student Affairs, the Department of Public Safety and the General Counsel's Office.

The University also is in the process of developing employee awareness programs and supervisory training aimed at preventing workplace violence.

Workplace Violence Warning Signs

  • Marking threats (direct or indirect) to seek revenge, obsessive focus on a grudge
  • Comments or interest in weapons, death or other violent situations
  • History of violence or conflicts with authority
  • Suspected alcohol or drug problem
  • Exhibit paranoia, depression or bizarre behavior
  • Change in work behavior or work status (interpersonal conflicts, attendance, downsizing, grievance problems, denied promotion, termination)
  • Denied claims (worker's comp., other suits)
  • Recent history of major stress/family problems
  • Obsession (romantic or hate) with another employee

Managing an Escalating Crisis

Nonverbal

Verbal

Environmental

DO

Be observant of potential problems.

Use a communication framework.

Take the person to a quiet place away from others.

Pay attention to your stance and use of personal space.

Keep tone of voice low and calm.

Allow room to pace (to burn off energy).

Use active listening.

Allow the person to speak freely at first in order to grasp the difficulty.

Offer something to drink; water, juice or soft drink.

Present an empathetic attitude.

Focus on the specific problem and use problem-solving techniques.

Allow for enough personal space so that you or the other person have time to break.

Maintain a person's dignity/self-esteem.

Offer choices--no matter how small.

Non-Verbal

Verbal

Environmental

DON'T

Don't touch the person.

Don't argue, challenge or react with anger.

Don't "corner."

Don't stand or sit incorrectly.

Don't condescend.

Don't isolate where help is not available to you.

Don't use poor listening techniques.

Don't agree or disagree with distortions of reality.

Don't keep the person in a crowded area.

Don't have a nega tive attitude.

Don't get involved in a power struggle

Don't make promises that you can't keep or have no control over.

Don't interrupt, talk too much or hurry the communication process.